Thoughts on computer based instrument paradigms

Over the past couple of years, I have been thinking about computer music instrument design, or how to turn my laptop into a musical instrument. Much of this is due to my participation in the Laptop Orchestra of Louisiana or LOLs. The process of writing a piece for the LOLs often involves designing an instrument, and in my thinking on the subject, I have been putting these instruments into two broad categories. Direct control instruments are instruments in which an action of the performer maps directly to a sound from the instrument, i.e. pull the trigger and sound comes out, move the joystick forward and the pitch changes, etc. The other category is code/process controlled instruments, or instruments where the sound is produced by a process, which is simply launched by the performer, or possibly live coded, but the performer does not have control of individual musical events once the process is set into motion.

I have tended towards direct control instruments in my own work. I think this is largely due to my trombone player DNA. I am used to playing an acoustic instrument (direct control) and so much of my performance world view has been formed by that experience. One of the difficulties with designing new direct control instruments is that it often takes a significant amount of time to learn to play them well. Like any instrument, one must spend some time with it to develop any technique or sense of musical connection to the instrument.

On the other hand, process controlled instruments allow for the creation of highly complex musical expressions with little or no time spent learning technique, but they lack the intimacy of control, especially in terms of timing, that one gets from direct control.

Tonight I was reading an article (from 1991) by David Wessel called “Improvisation with Highly Interactive Real-Time Performance Systems.” In this article, he describes a system that seems to be a direct process control system. He launches the processes (I use the term process to be consistent with my categories, I don’t know that he would use that word) from a direct control instrument. This returns the control of low level timing to the performer, yet allows the performer to still take advantage of what the computer processes have to offer. He also talks about mapping expressive gestures to entire phrases as opposed to single notes.

These ideas have started some wheels turning about my next computer instrument.

I love it when I discover that someone solved my current dilemma twenty years ago. That’s why we should always be attentive in history class.